My dad was the first person I remember having a drink. In high school, I figured out how to get stupid drunk. In college, we learned to make a game out of it. Nobody, though, taught me how to drink. In fact, nobody can teach you how to drink. You just kind of figure it out as you go, having fun and collecting great stories along the way. That was the backbone of an idea that, with a lot of help, became American Drink.
The first cocktail I attempted was more drank than drink: Gin and juice, just like the Snoop Doggy Dog jam. Snoop never gave a recipe so we’d mix equal portions of gin and juice in one of those gas station-scented water bottles and sip it through the bendy straw. You know, like a mother-fucking gangsta.
Sometimes we’d use orange juice, Kool-Aid, purple stuff, whatever. At that potency, it didn’t take much to catch a buzz. The drank and spittle coagulated in the creases of the straw as we played Quarters. It was awful, of course, but this what playas drank and I was a playa1.
A year later, I was a soldier in Haiti. Luckily, I wasn’t garrisoned with the main contingent in Port-au-Prince. I lived in Gonaïves on the roof of a former drug lord’s house, above 18 high-speed, low-drag, active duty snake-eaters, and they hated us. We were fake soldiers. Too “Hollywood.” Soft.
So my team of four Army Reservists kept to ourselves and made great friends with the locals. We wore civilian clothes, lived off the economy and even picked up the language by hanging out with them every chance we could. Part of my job was to learn everything about the local culture in order to better assess and address their needs; real “hearts and minds” kind of stuff that I took to heart.
One evening, our local friends invited us to their family home for dinner— a real honor considering that most Haitians ate one meal for every five that we consumed.
Yveline was 12, maybe 13, and wanted to make her first meal, for us. Her mother, Alice, served us our first alcoholic beverage in about four months: A punch made with fresh passion fruit, orange, key lime juices and four-year-old Barbancourt Rhum2. The taste is still in my mouth— tart floral juices perfectly balanced by the dry charcoal flavor of barrel-aged rum.
Good thing, too. Yveline’s chicken was luke-warm and undercooked. We could have been asshole Americans by either refusing to eat it or asking her to cook it longer. Instead we bucked up and washed it down with a LOT of punch.
The next two days, we were wrecked by booze and bad chicken, but that night we laughed, sang and danced until we couldn’t.
I returned to the States a few months later with three bottles of 15-year-old, Estate Reserve Barbancourt and no idea what to do with it. I mixed it with Coke like some kind of yacht club asshole or tried to recreate that magical punch. Both were failures and it wasn’t until I started to sip it neat that I finally got it; This spirit wanted to fly free as a muscle-shirted eagle.
I either drank everything straight or had Old Fashioneds, like a real man, until I met my Sweetness. When we started courting, we experimented by making all kinds of drinks, from standard cocktails and magical elixirs to outright failures. See, there’s a joy in new love that makes you brave. You’re willing to try anything a couple times until you get it right or chuck it all together.
We learned that:
* Most drinks created with pre-made mixers were too sweet.
* Scotch is hard to mix, so don’t.
* Balance of sweet, sour and spirit is everything.
We travelled everywhere together looking for small, secret places in big cities, crawling their cocktail menus for certain code words:
- Our own pre-made mix = sweet garbage
- Blue [anything] = electric garbage
- [Something]-tini = we’re in the wrong bar
- Fresh [citrus] juice = Warm
- Muddled = Warmer
- Homemade = HOT
Sure, there are exceptions but not many. We found that if the drink description resembled an expertly crafted Twitter post more than a list of ingredients, someone cared and the bartender is paying attention.
No, my dad didn’t teach me to drink, but I watched him have fun. I did learn that.
Pronounced |bär•bə•kôr|. Haitians call this Twa Zetwal (three star). Barbancourt Rhum is marked with stars based on the quality and age. There’s three star which is aged four years, senk(5) etwal comes in at 8 years. There’s also a rum they call Youn Etwal which is moonshine of unknown proof (high) and not produced by the Barbancourt distillery. At least that’s what they tell me. ↩